The immense size of the US market for acoustic instruments - not to mention an all round kinder attitude to start-up businesses - are two of the reasons why it has been possible for a generation of American luthiers to grow into quite reasonably-sized operations in recent decades - think Taylor, Santa Cruz, Collings et al. That said, it still isn't easy to make the switch from being a few guys in a shed, lovingly handcrafting instruments, to owning and running a factory, while keeping the quality sky-high. Of the few that seem comfortably to have managed the transition is Oregon's Breedlove Guitars.
If your focus is solely on this side of the Atlantic, you may only recently have become aware of Breedlove, because full UK distribution came about relatively recently, with GoTo guitars handling Breedlove's acoustics and Gremlin, distributing the mandolin range. Back home, however, Breedlove has been Big News among cognoscenti for a while now - and when you handle one of the company's acoustic guitars or mandolins, you soon see why.
So, hat's off to Kim Breedlove, as the man who started the business, then? Actually, no. Kim Breedlove is the man responsible for many of the designs, right enough, and - importantly - sets a standard of inlay work which properly qualifies as art, but he didn't actually start the company. That was his brother. Who now works for Taylor. Perhaps it's best to let him explain!
'My brother, Larry, started the business here in Bend, Oregon, as a warranty repairman for Taylor guitars in 1990. In '92 they actually started building Breedlove guitars. I'd always wanted to come back out West, so I came and joined them in 1994, when they needed some help running the production - in part because they were starting to make about five guitars a week which was more than they had ever dreamed of producing!'
So how did Kim get started?
'Actually, I was a banjo and mandolin maker at first. I got started when my mother bought me a banjo in 1971, when I was still in college.. I'd been playing guitar and mandolin at that time
and I started tinkering around with the banjo, because it's an instrument that you can take apart. So I fixed it up, reset the neck, put on a new head and just got interested in tinkering with it. At college I was pursuing my degree in art, which I finished and then took a long graduation trip down to Mexico, where I bought a mandolin in Paracho, where they make a lot of Spanish guitars. At that point, I said then that when I got back to California I was going to pursue a career in luthiery, if I could'.
Had his degree taken him into wood sculpture at all?
'No, I graduated with a degree in drawing and painting so, basically, I'm an artist and a musician and the two just culminated in a direction I just wanted to take. Ever since, I've pretty much been combining the two'.
Though he now draws much of his influence from the wild North Western territory of Oregon (there's a strong local feel to the whole Breedlove concept, as visitors to the website will soon see - a definite sense of the genius of wild woods and powerful rivers), Kim grew up in San Diego, California (ironically, in the same town as Bob Taylor). After he had got a job as a part-time art teacher and began making instruments, he returned there, in 1976, for what was to prove a decisive point in his career.
'I started first by making dulcimers and banjos and in 1976, I started working with Greg Deering and Jeff Stelling' (the Rolls and Royce of US banjos) 'They were together at that time and we were a very small company, but that's where I first started getting into production work. Until then I had been producing instruments on my own'.
Had he had no training at all?
'Well, there wasn't a whole lot of choice back then. There were big companies, but not a lot else. Taylor was just getting started, Deering and Stelling were just starting out in the same area, San Diego, and pretty much we were all self-taught. I learned a lot from Greg Deering and I guess we all learned from each other back then.
'We developed the whole Stelling banjo thing and I moved to Virginia with Jeff Stelling when he parted ways with Greg Deering, so they became two separate companies. I worked for Jeff, in Virginia, until 1994, when I came out to work with my brother here at Breedlove guitars. I'd pretty much been shop foreman for, from 1976-1994, making high-end banjos and a brief stint with mandolins, in the early '80s'.
When Kim says he joined Breedlove in 1994, that turns out to have been the year in which his brother left, and now Kim works with Larry's original partner in the business, Steve Henderson. So what happened to Larry?
'Larry had come from Taylor Guitars originally and he went back there, and he's still with them'.
Larry and Steve Henderson had already begun to make their mark as luthiers with some very distinctive instruments, and the magic touch was probably added when Kim arrived with his fine arts background, to add inlay work of a seriously high calibre - not to mention the highly desirable mandolins.
'It was in '95 or maybe '96, that I started prototyping our first mandolins,' he says. 'I had quite an extensive background in mandolin construction, so I had a good idea of what I wanted and then, working together with Steve Henderson, every new guitar model we came up with was a collaboration, though the mandolins were pretty much my project.'
Having got Breedlove on track, Kim's main role these days is working on the company's luxury-class, custom instruments. 'Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm delegated to do,' he laughs. 'All the extraordinary, over the top custom stuff, I do, because it doesn't fit into normal production. I probably have too many going on at any one time, because there's no shortage of custom orders and I'm doing most of those myself - all the design and artwork.'
If you came to Breedlove and said you'd like a custom model, how would the process work?
'Most of the people who order a custom guitar know what woods they want and have some basic ideas. If they don't, we have sales staff who walk them through the different woods and the various tones they can expect from different combinations. If people don't know about that, we can base a lot on what style they play - an aggressive player, or maybe someone with a softer, fingerstyle, for example. But, generally, people know what they want. As for inlays - well, some people don't have a budget - which is nice! - but others do, so we establish a framework and work inside that.
'In the past our average buyer was probably in his forties and already owned three or four high-end guitars, probably made a good salary as a lawyer of doctor, but we now have some less expensive guitars from our custom shop, typically around $3-4,000, and they are broadening the appeal. We do about 20 guitars and eight mandolins a week in our custom shop - about what Taylor makes in the first couple of hours!'
For the splash that it has made internationally, Breedlove remains a relatively small, close-knit business, employing around 30 people in Bend, Oregon, with only 23 of them actually making guitars. By any standards, this is really back to the roots stuff - and all the more impressive for it.
And, in case you're thinking "but what about me?" there's a Korean-produced sub-brand, Atlas, which is also winning good reviews. The nice thing here is that the 1,200-1,500 Atlas guitars produced per month aren't simply shipped from Korea to distributors around the world on a 'wait, hope and see' basis, but go to Oregon, to be checked for quality, first.
Back on the US-produced models, the talk, inevitably, gets round to tonewoods and how hard they are to come by. Breedlove, with its strong roots in the US West, has made a name for using less common, native woods, but still they must need the traditional kinds to meet customer expectations, so how do they manage to get them? For example, their mahogany still comes from central America. How do they manage that?
'Well, we're small enough to do it,' he laughs. 'There's some concern about this, though, I understand. Some companies use African mahogany, which is not true Honduran or South American mahogany - it's sapele - kind of ribbony and pretty - and all our Korean Atlas guitars are made from that. It's a pretty good substitute and there are no problems using it. But for the guitars we make here, we don't have too many problems getting the real thing, because we aren't trying to buy huge quantities. But there's no getting away from the fact that we need to look for alternatives and we are discussing that, daily.
'In the end it's going to come down to some sort of composite and we have been playing around with different ideas, but in the end it will be the big makers who set the trend there. For the time being, here in Oregon, we are using Honduran mahogany but we are looking into using sapele, too. Most of our rosewood is East Indian, but though we don't use a lot of Brazilian rosewood, in the quantities we need it, it seems to be readily available - though it's stump wood now, which has quite a bit of figure in it, so it's really beautiful'.
what about the Breedlove hallmarks, like myrtle.
'Well, yes, my brother and I always had a fascination with myrtle wood and it's become kind of our signature, as has using as many native hardwoods as we can, for example, combining myrtle wood with the Oregon walnut that grows in this area. That's backs and sides out of myrtle wood with a walnut binding.'
How does that combination sound?
'Kind of a cross between maple and mahogany - mellow - not bright like maple, but not too dark: more akin to mahogany.
'Brazilian rosewood has always been my favourite, but we're pretty much in love with myrtle wood here. In terms of how orders break down, the bulk are East Indian rosewood, with Honduran mahogany as number two. But we also use a striped ebony that Breedlove has been known for and we've probably made more of those than any other manufacturer'.
With acoustic guitars, what you don't see is more often important than what you do - so what is going on inside, with regard to bracing?
'We have two lines going in the custom shop - what we call the original Breedlove and what we call the "revival series", which is our version of pre-war Martin. Our originals utilise the JLD bridge-truss system, which basically relaxes the top and counteracts the string pull on it.
'Using this has enabled us to do a lot with bracing and try things like the graduated thickness of our tops, which are thinner on the bass side and thicker on the treble side. The braces are heavily scalloped, so we're bracing the tops as lightly as we can get away with, because we know our bridge-truss system is going to allow that top to not pull in a manner that will destroy it.
'I think we're very well known for our bass response and I think having the freer top helps that, along with probably more resonance - and they're a loud guitar, too. In the early days they were very light - some people even referred to them as "floppy top" guitars - but we've made them more stable now, for longevity's sake. We don't have many coming back for top replacement due to anything we've done - just damage caused by people dropping them, or shipping problems'.
If every new maker needs a trademark, Breedlove's is perhaps the extreme cutaway that features on some of its models. How had that come about?
'That was my brother Larry's original design - the sharp cut. I think the first couple of years, everything that had a cutaway had the sharp cut, but once we started doing the soft cutaway, that's where most of our orders came from. We do still get quite a few for the sharp cutaway and it's still on our flagship CM asymmetrical shape, but most people seem to prefer the softer cutaway, which is more conformable to play.'
Among purists, there is still some debate still about the benefits of traditional varnishes over the polyester types. One which side does Breedlove come down?
'We're just getting into UV polyester resin. Currently most of our guitars have a catalysed two-part polyurethane, which we've been using for many years, but right now we're using a combination of UV cured polyester and then a polyurethane top coat over that.. A lot of the big companies just use the UV finish all the way through, but were still mixing and experimenting'.
Does Breedlove think the choice of varnish holds much of a clue to the eventual sound of a guitar?
'As long as you keep the finished product thin, I think it's fine. The 6-10,000's of an inch we're using, I don't think is going to affect the tone one way or another.'
One thing Breedlove does do is employ epoxy to glue-on the fingerboards - something he learned with Stelling and Deering in the 1970s. He says it keeps the broad nice and stable while radiusing it but, interestingly, adds that if a new fretboard is ever needed, epoxy presents no challenges: just heat it up with a very hot iron, and off it comes!
Apart from being a damned fine luthier, Kim Breedlove's other claim to fame is as an inlay artist. Bearing in mind his fine arts degree, this perhaps shouldn't be a surprise. All the same, some of the inlay work coming out of Bend, Oregon is simply breathtaking. So what are Kim's favourite materials, and why?
'I've pretty much been a combination pearl and abalone kind of person for my career. We do use quite a few different types of pearl - black, gold, pink and white pearls for example. We also use quite a bit of wood to complement, say, the binding. But the majority we use is still solid shell. We have several patterns that we do over and over again - cut with a C&C machine now, of course - and we're also using Abalam, which is laminated veneers of real shell. Most everybody uses that now for manufactured guitars for rosettes, simple inlays and the like. I still try to use solid shell as much as possible and definitely for all the custom inlays that people order'.
Speaking with Kim Breedlove, you get the sense that however well the business may be developing, it isn't going to go to his head. He'll just keep himself locked away, lovingly crafting his custom models, leaving the commercial decisions to others. When we did the interview, in the background was the constant sound of guitars and mandolins being tuned and adjusted. That and the sounds of real wood being worked by real people. Which is pretty much, you come away thinking, what Breedlove is all about.